In our culture, there are certain numbers that can evoke strong emotions with their presence. 666 is one such number. In the Eastern world, 108 has the same effect. 911 implies law enforcement, and all the issues that it are associated with it. 9/11, however, implies something completely different. Another date that conjures up strong feelings is 1984, a number that is associated with a totalitarian dystopia, bent on stamping out individuality through persistent surveillance, mass psychological manipulation and physical brutality.
Indeed, the book 1984 is quite popular in the English-speaking world, that is, for a book that hardly anyone reads, if this Guardian Poll is anything to go by :
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Ring any bells? How about: “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” Many will not have read the novel from which these are among the opening lines – but nearly half of us are happy to lie and say we have, a survey reveals today.
George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four comes top in a poll of the UK’s guilty reading secrets. Asked if they had ever claimed to read a book when they had not, 65% of respondents said yes and 42% said they had falsely claimed to have read Orwell’s classic in order to impress.
The fact is, that most people nowadays engage with literature through visual images, not the original literary ones. This is why I have chosen 1984 as a specific moment that represents the switch from a literary culture to a graphic one. Neil Postman has chosen a much earlier date for the changeover , but I will stick with Apple’s Superbowl ad for reasons that will become clearer both throughout this series and this blog.
Postman’s Foreword for ‘ Amusing Ourselves to Death ‘ can be easily considered his most concise piece of writing – and his finest . In very persuasive prose, he shows that the dystopian worlds of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ are not only different, but mutually exclusive. This can be seen in the diagram below.
I have made my own slight alterations to the Huxleyan dystopia, updating it somewhat for modern times. The changes that I make are specifically to show how the Internet, the soft sciences (behavioral analysis) and data analysis could apply to a Huxleyan regime. After all, why use a RFID chip when the cookie in your browser cache will suffice? But the point remains the same. The Totalitarian and Statist regimes that existed in the latter half of the 20th century had controlled their populations by inflicting pain, our modern Consumer Capitalist states (and the large corporations that spring from them) control us with pleasure. But is that really so bad? The citizens of Brave New World were perfectly happy, as are we! Just replace Soma and the centrifugal bumblepuppy with reality TV and Xbox and we are almost their already!
You probably already anticipated that I am going to say that ‘yes, that is bad,’ so I’ll explain why. The world of Brave New World did not have the worries of rapidly decreasing finite resources in world of infinite wants. They did not have to worry about the conflicts that a world with multiple intersections of class and race brings. They did not have to worry about supranational corporations and other powerful organizations encroaching in our lives. We do. And our leaders are not doleful Grand Inquisitors like Mustapha Mond, but amoral at best and incompetent at worst. Not our parents. Us.
The Millennial Generation can be said to have started around 1984, or around the same time Margaret Thatcher (England), Ronald Reagan (United States of America) and Edward Seaga (Jamaica) were re-elected for a second term in government. What is significant about their re-elections is that they were not based upon rational appeals to the electorate, or to public grievances (such those that brought Michael Manley into power) but to imagery and raw emotion, as espoused in media like television commercials. The ‘war’ with Grenada resulted in a nationalist fervour which returned Reagan to office (and which Seaga manipulated for his own benefit), and the same could be said of the Falklands War and Madame Thatcher’s electoral victory. That this occurred around the same time of Apple’s 1984 commercial is no coincidence. The television commercial had become the West’s primary art form by then, being used for everything from health education to political philosophy. True, a 60 second advertisement must, by definition, trivialize those subjects, but it doesn’t matter, because when that is all you grow up knowing, then that is what you consider normal.
But what those elections were to political discourse, Ridley Scott’s ‘1984’ ad was to George Orwell’s masterpiece. While it may be argued that a 60 second advertisement should not be compared to Orwell’s 300 page masterwork, unfortunately, it must. The same with ‘Days of Future Past‘, Equilibrium, and almost every other pop dystopian fiction. What separates them from the classics of the genre, is their complete ignorance of politics and economics as it would apply to the characters and settings. Oh, they get some of the gloomy atmosphere right, and the stamping out of individuality is usually there, if not outright genocide, but that’s about it. This is the problem with shifting a message from one medium to another without considering the changes that the message will undergo as a result of said shift. comes warped, if not completely changed. And in order to make the necessary refit, the class struggles that are central to both Brave New World and 1984 are omitted. No Alphas, Betas or Gammas are depicted, neither is there any mention of anything like ‘The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism’ in the derivative works. Instead it is conformist against non-conformist, hip versus square ,rebel versus everyman.. In the case of the Apple advertisement, non-conformism means buying a Macintosh.
The one thing that both the Huxleyan and the Orwellian scenarios have in common is that they established and maintained their dystopias through the use of advanced technologies and media manipulation. What those dystopias have in common with our world is that both the characters and ourselves have not undertaken to understand the philosophy of those technologies that are used to control a population. Neil Postman seeks to change that, focusing on television, both as a technology and a philosophy.
The world of 1984 was too quixotic, too complex and too bureaucratic to be directly implemented on the Western side of the Iron Curtain. Yet I have no doubt that Orwell understood this, and intended that his book be a self-defeating prophecy that would give its readers the language and ideas to recognize and combat such a regime, should ever threaten to arise. A shame we have no such guide for a Huxleyan dystopia. So Neil Postman’s work will have to do for now. At least , until I get around to reviewing some more authors.
The Orwellian scenario could not come about by itself in the Western world. But it has long since been banished from Western consciousness, replaced instead with watered versions of dystopias, promote consumption as a form of liberation and non-conformity as individuality. For that, you need to level all culture to the same the same importance Then 1984 goes from being a self -defeating prophecy to that can be fulfilled, given the right set of situations. For that you need a Huxleyan culture, where no one sees a reason to read a book, where relevant information is drowned in a see of triviality and truth rendered irrelevant among a sea of answers. That culture would not be able to understand what 1984 warned us about, even if they did read 1984. What then , would stop the politicians, the managers, the financiers and their associated Numerati from dropping the Huxleyan pretense and going straight into Orwellian style feudalism? Not much I’m afraid. A Brave New World for us Millennials indeed.